Don't repeat Verwoerd's mistake of not trusting people to own their own land - panelist

With land expropriation on the cards, and many stakeholders already buying into the process, the big challenge will be turning expropriated land into productive businesses that contribute to the economy, experts said about the topic during a Nation in Conversation panel discussion.

In other words, "how not to turn live capital into dead capital", as Russel du Preez, chief investment officer of the RusselStone Group, explained on Tuesday at the Nampo Harvest Day in Bothaville.

"We have to ask what the goal of society is and learn from history," he said. "It was Verwoerd who said that we can't trust the people to own their own land. Now we want to make the same mistake again. We can't live without title deeds if we want to solve poverty through agriculture.

"If we look at the research, there is a linear line between food security and titled deeds. It's plain and simple, you can't take live capital and make it dead. By giving people title deeds to the land, you unlock huge capital for the country."

Learning from other countries

Part of the discussion revolved around the lessons South Africa could learn from land reform in other African countries, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe, where different policy routes were followed.

In Namibia, the government instituted a policy where it had the first right of refusal on any farm that went on the market.

"There was a big shift of land to previously disadvantaged people and the policy worked well. But large, commercial farms are now unproductive, because nobody thought about the next phase," explained Raphael Karuaihe, a commodity derivatives manager at the JSE. The new farmers did not receive the title deeds to the land and had to lease it from the state.

Zimbabwean politician Simba Makoni, said it was important for South Africa to accept and anticipate the changes in the agriculture sector.

Caution about reacting with panic

"Many players in Zimbabwe involved in agriculture were caught off guard and both business and the government reacted with panic to land invasions because nobody planned for it. You have to be proactive in order to shape the direction of the policy around land. When you react in panic, you react negatively. Rather act proactively so you can do so positively."

According to Makoni, the most important thing is to act fast on any policy decisions taken.

"If you focus on land and agrarian reform in development, you have to make your decision quickly. If you have to wait 20 years to implement the policy you pass the initiative on to other people and you can't change the policy direction."

Chris Venter, CEO of Afgri Group Holdings, said he regards the process started by President Cyril Ramaphosa to refuel land reform as very proactive.

"People who are negative about the process don't understand it. We can't get away from talking about land reform," he said.

"We know the number of commercial farmers in the country is declining. We have to turn this process around by upskilling and empowering our small farmers and we need to have government in the process," Venter said.

There was consensus that it will be crucial for South Africa to move more small-scale farmers into the production line if it is to remain the food basket of sub-Sahara Africa.